Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Christian Theology, History, and Science

An area of significant debate in our culture right now is the relationship between the Christian faith and the scientific endeavor.  It is largely assumed in most non-Christian circles, and more and more within them, that the Christian faith is largely hostile to science.  It is said that science is a matter of knowledge and Christianity is a matter of faith, placing science on the higher pedestal.  And then, often, stories are trotted out to make the case that the Christian faith has historically been anti-science in one fashion or another.  But does this point of view do justice to both Christian history and theology?  I will deal with some of the basics - many of which will surprise readers - and leave the gory details to those who write book-length treatments of such things.

Christian Theology Has Been a Science Starter

One bumper sticker used in this debate is that Christianity is a "science stopper," basically meaning that the act of putting faith in God excludes someone from the act of engaging in science.  This view simply does not account for key components of Christian theology or the progress of science within the Christian church.  Christian theology was the fertile soil in which the scientific revolution took place.  Of course there are plenty of historical figures in science who were not Christian, but the foundation was built by Christian theology.  As the sociologist, Rodney Stark, puts it, "In contrast with the dominant religious and philosophical doctrines in the non-Christian world, Christians developed science because they believed it could be done, and should be done."[i]

The celebrated philosopher Sir Alfred North Whitehead argued that Christianity was the mother of science because of the medieval insistence on the rationality of God.[ii]  The fundamental idea was that God the Creator is rational, so his creation is able to be studied with reliability and order can be discovered.  Others, like the scholar M.B. Foster, attribute this idea to the uniqueness of the Christian doctrine of creation.  Unlike mythologies that have the universe beginning in chaos or struggle between gods, the Christian doctrine is one of simple creation by a law-giving God.

History Followed Theology

As a result, the history of science, especially early on, is littered with people driven into scientific discovery exactly because they believed they were able to and God wanted them to.  Instead of believing they were getting rid of the "God hypothesis," they believed they were honoring God with their intellects and abilities and would see him more clearly the more they learned.

Over 70% of the Royal Society of London, a society established in 1660 to promote the cause of science, was Puritans when it began.  Puritans were far less than 70% of the population of England at the time.  It was they who were the pioneers of the methodology of observation and inquiry.  Francis Bacon, seen by some as the "major prophet of the Scientific Revolution," once wrote, "There are two books laid before us to study, to prevent our falling into error: first, the volume of the Scriptures, and then the volume of the Creatures."[iii]

Copernicus wrote that the universe was "wrought for us by a supremely good and orderly Creator."[iv]  Galileo, whose story as it is popularly understood is largely oversimplified, was a devoted Christian even while he was put under pressure by forces within the church.  He was convinced that God was "a Divine Craftsman or Architect Who created the world as an intricate mechanism"[v] and could be studied to the glory of God.

Johannes Kepler was not shy about his investigations into astronomy and his God.  He wrote, "My wish is that I may perceive that God whom I find everywhere in the external world in like manner within me."[vi]

Isaac Newton is worth quoting at length from his General Scholium:

But it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions: since the Comets range over all parts of the heavens, in very eccentric orbits. For by that kind of motion they pass easily through the orbs of the Planets, and with great rapidity; and in their aphelions, where they move the slowest, and are detain'd the longest, they recede to the greatest distances from each other, and thence suffer the least disturbance from their mutual attractions. This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. And if the fixed Stars are the centers of other like systems, these being form'd by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially since the light of the fixed Stars is of the same nature with the light of the Sun, and from every system light passes into all the other systems.

These examples only scratch the surface of the pioneers of science who discovered science-forming and science-creating realities and simultaneously sought God with an open heart and open mind.  But these examples may suffice to make the simple point: there is no inherent conflict between believing in the God of the Christian faith and pursuing science in all its viable forms.

[i] Stark, Victory of Reason, (Random House, New York 2006), 14, emphasis his.

[ii] Alfred North Whitehead [1925]. Science and the Modern World. (Free Press, New York, 1967), 13.

[iii] Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning

[iv] Pearcey and Thaxton, The Soul of Science,(Crossway, Wheaton, Ill, 1994) 25

[v] Pearcey and Thaxton, The Soul of Science, 71

[vi] Kepler, quoted in Will Durant, The Age of Reason Begins (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), 600

Friday, June 27, 2014

John Lennox and the Myths of Faith and Science

It is a privilege to get to hear John Lennox in person, and I would recommend that if you are interested in matter of the Christian faith and science you should look up some of his debates or lectures.  In his first plenary session at the AG Faith and Science Conference, he focused on thee "myths."  These are ideas currently floating around about science and God that are false, and in their ways, dangerous to reasonable reflection on either topic.

Here are the three myths and a few brief thoughts about each.

1. There is a war between God and science.  The conflict is not about God on one side of the issue and science on the other.  There are very good scientists who do very good science on both side of the issue.  The conflict lies on a deeper, more worldview level.  What passes for the conflict right now is the difference between Theism (specifically Christian theism) and Naturalism/Materialism.  Lennox's basic axiom, as he called it, is that the universe is not neutral in its proclamation about God.  He detailed several issues concerning both the history and philosophy of science making the case that Christianity is the engine that drove the scientific revolution.

2. The more we do science the less we need of God.  This myth is a misunderstanding about God, or more appropriately, a conflation of ideas about gods and the idea of God.  If you define God as a simple explanation for things we don't understand, then it follows that the more we learn about the universe the less we need of God.  But only people who don't understand who the God of the Bible is define him that way.  It has always been the case that deeply pious people have done science and grown in their appreciation of God exactly because God is known to be the ground for, or reason for, all that exists.  Lennox used a wonderful image here - the more I understand about art the more I appreciate the greats and the more I understand about engineering the more I can appreciate the Space Shuttle.  The more we know about nature leads to the same growing appreciation of God, not less.

3. Science is coextensive with rationality.  This current conception of science is akin to what he calls scientific fundamentalism.  It is scientism which is the belief that science is the only actual means to knowledge about reality.  It is often claimed that evoking God as some kind of cause cheapens the explanation and has no place in science.  Lennox's approach to this was incisive.  There can be more than one cause for the same effect which do not contradict or exclude the other.  (This part of his presentation reminded me of Aristotelian causality.)  Why does the pot of water boil?  It boils because a heat source is applied to water and energy is released.  It boils because I want a pot of tea.  Both are correct answers to what caused the boiling, each in their way.  But the modern scientific endeavor wants you to think the first one is the only one.

One big-picture idea he made sure to put across is that the follower of Christ need not be intimidated by the bombastic claims of the New Atheism.  What matters is that their ideas are not very good and don't take much work to refute.  There is no "war" between science and the Christian faith.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Necessary Corrective In The Current Atmosphere of Ministry

David Hansen, The Art of Pastoring: Ministry Without All The Answers, Revised Edition. (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2012). 219 pages.

I read this book in a day and a half. I never do that, but the Forward intrigued me and the book quickly pulled me in.  I am interested in the role of Pastor - how to define it, what it looks like from day to day, who the Pastor stands responsible to, and so on.  I am convinced that with the past 30 years (at least) of the corporatization of the pastoral vocation, we stand in an arid landscape and don't know exactly where to find water.

Hansen's book is water in a dry land.  Hansen refuses to be boxed in by the all too common expectations  every modern pastor knows, and instead, has his eyes on Christ and Christ's ministry to people.  My experience resonates with his when he says, "When I began the pastoral ministry, I had lots of books prescribing pastoral ministry - the so-called how-to books.  I had books on how to preach, how to administrate a church, how to do pastoral counseling and how to lead small groups.  They didn't help me" (pg 11).  Each chapter addresses an important component to the pastor's ministry as he discusses things like the pastor's call, preaching, prayer, and leadership.  Within each chapter his experiences as pastor of a yoked parish in Montana plays the central role, but as he makes clear the stories he relates are about the theology that shape them.

Pastors need to leave the dry land of management techniques and rediscover the fertile soil of Christ's kingdom among us.  Hansen is clear about his relationship with what we would call vision and mission statements, and he would rather see a pastor reading theology and preaching Christ.  You can't go wrong if you learn how to preach Christ from the pulpit.

In my opinion Hansen wrote a necessary book 20 years ago and I am thankful for its new edition and my fortuitous discovery of this gem.  From now on I will refer my pastor friends to this book and refer myself back to it when I need a course correction back to the good country.

If you find my review helpful, please say so on Amazon.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Pastor as Philosopher

[This is one in a string of posts made up of me processing the role of the contemporary pastor. For the other posts follow the tag, "The Pastor."]

This one may seem like a stretch to you.  We are much more accustomed to thinking of the modern pastor as someone who is counselor, businessman, or cheerleader.  We might even stretch ourselves to think of the pastor as a kind of theologian (which we, hopefully, accomplished), but considering him or her a philosopher seems out of bounds to us.  But that might stem from two problems - evangelical anti-intellectualism and a short-sighted conception of what a philosopher is.

I want to save a discussion about evangelical anti-intellectualism for the future, so for now we will think about expanding our sense of what it means to be a philosopher.  Our current culture, and modern philosophy, has filled the term "philosopher" with the image of someone who speculates about or analyzes reality and the human condition.  And in an unfair turn to that conception, we have by in large decided that is a purely "academic" and non-useful expenditure of time.  Without spending a great deal of effort defending the role of philosopher as thus conceived, I am intrigued by how this term was understood at the roots of the Christian faith.

Citing Socrates the church historian, the Russian Orthodox priest, Gabriel Bunge, says, "One understands 'philosophy' in this sense preeminently as the perfect unity of Christian accomplishment in life and Christian knowledge of God" (Despondency, pg 17).  Thus understood, several early Christians were labeled as philosophers who would not be today.  Desert monks who sought the presence and wisdom of God in long stretches of silence and solitude were called philosophers.  Abbots who spoke in proverbs were as well.  Those who studied the leading thinkers of the Greek and Roman worlds were called philosophers, as were those who produced reasoned defenses for the Christian faith in the Roman world.  So, more properly understood, the philosopher is a lover of wisdom (which is the etymology of the word, anyway), and easily applies to anyone in the Christian faith who applies themselves to the things of God to understand them in a deeper and clearer sense and then strives to live by what they learn.

How could that not describe the proper role of a pastor?  The pastor as philosopher is a lover of God's wisdom and a liver of God's life.  And in the role of pastor, they lead others in this kind of life as their vocation intersects with their lives.

A few brief thought on what this means, intended to plant seeds for further thought, will suffice for now.

This kind of pastor is not satisfied with culturally conditioned evangelical pop culture.  They are not the kind of preacher who buys their sermons on the weekend and replaces all the specific references in order to make sure it sounds like they are not warming up someone else's leftovers.  This pastor is driven by the search for God's wisdom in his Word and in the world around him.  They know that wisdom rarely if ever fits into neat boxes of "5 Steps" or quick answers to life's tendency to bludgeon people.

Their reading habits are different than other people's.  While they may be aware of what "most people" read, they are hunting down more insightful and longer lasting things.  Their library - virtual or tree - reveals a fairly broad set of interests.  The philosopher pastor is a synthesizer and analyzer.   They learn how to take in what they encounter and filter it through the lenses of prayer and sound theology.  What comes out of them, then, is simply different from what most people can put out as a result of their pop culture consumptions.

They are driven by the fascination of seeing the things they learn about God's will and work applied to the lives of the people in their congregation and to the community around them.  And they are fascinated by conversations that reveal what Christ is at work doing in people's lives.

This pastor does not allow their role to be relegated to other boxes created by other professions that are, currently, better understood.  The pastor is a counselor, but not a professional therapist.  The pastor is a leader of sorts, but not a corporate CEO.  And on the story goes.  The pastor as philosopher is wise enough and courageous enough to play those roles when needed, but to not be cornered into one of those cubicles.  They take their cues from the biblical understanding of spiritual shepherding rather than from the career resumes currently at the top of the cultural importance list.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Early Christian Female Philosopher

One of the advances of the Christian faith is that women took a greater role in private and public life than they had in the Roman and African world around them.  It is a simple matter of history that Christians educated and learned from women at a time when it was ridiculous to think it possible.  I ran across one small example in an ecclesiastical history written by a man named Socrates.  This history covers the period of time from 305ad to 438ad.

There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not unfrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.

She fell victim to false political slander and was murdered.  Socrates adds, "And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril’s episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius."

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Links with Little Context

God is dead - What next?
Source: Arts and Letters Daily

-A short review article of two books written by hard-core materialists about the search for meaning after the supposed death of God.  Materialist scientists tend to not understand their own views.-

From the article:

God’s death just means that we need to construct our own, non-authoritative narratives and art, replete with purpose and meaning. Instead of one unified story to which everyone subscribes, we should play around with a plurality of downgraded stories, which can form the basis of our day-to-day lives.

But, of course, this is what we already do, and it is less a solution than a re-statement of the problem. His various narratives won’t provide the emotional relief he wants. For just as Christianity made sublime and cosmic “truths” accessible on a human level, so it invested everyday human life with cosmic significance. With God out of the picture, this is lost.

Stand Firm: Or End Up on the Wrong Side of Eschatology

-A call for orthodox Christians to stand firm in the face of cultural pressure to give in, specifically on the issues of sexuality and marriage.-

From the article:

Athanasius was on the wrong side of "history." Good for him; Christians must always so station themselves. Our Lord was murdered on Calvary by the great dead historical hulk called the Roman Empire.

Income Inequality: You Can't Handle The Truth : Acton

-Income inequality might not be what you think it is.-

From the article:

The truth about income inequality? It’s not greedy business folks hoarding their money from the rest of us. It’s a carefully constructed political plan meant to serve power-hungry pols.

Ed Stetzer's The Exchange

-Interview with Darrell Bock, his book, "Truth Matters," and wise cultural engagement-

-The Human Tail - another Darwinian myth.-

Friday, May 09, 2014

Pastor As Proclaimer In A Changing World

Whatever cultural props we thought supported our general world view are either gone or quickly going.  You
can no longer expect public schools to teach roughly the same moral system you do.  You can no longer expect the American legal system to "protect" our "traditional values."  You can no longer expect people to be morally enraged at the same things you are.  You can no longer expect people to have a general sense of what you do and what you believe when you tell them you are a pastor.

All this and more means the pastor now carries a certain kind of burden of proof.  I do not mean they need to justify their actual existence  (the point of all this is to underline the essential necessity of pastors) but that they need to pour effort into reclaiming their necessary role in the congregation and their culture.  So here are a few thoughts to help pastors and Christians think through this role.

1. Pastors become heralds of Christian orthodoxy. Right now a lot of pastoral practice centers on the practicality of what they bring to a congregation and a sermon, often reducing their role to a glorified counselor or self-help enthusiast.  Our culture is saturated with these kinds of people and so your congregation probably hears a lot of this kind of thing from day to day.  The Pastor does not need to be a copycat with a spiritual veneer, but something different altogether.

2. Pastors become intelligent heralds of Christian orthodoxy.  Not only do Christian pastors proclaim the truths once and for all delivered to the saints, they need to do it wisely.  This requires work; it means the pastor needs to intelligently engage the realities around him or her and the pressures on the lives of the congregation.  It does no good to preach and counsel as if we live in some imagined halcyon days when people grew up in church and simply need to be reminded of their Sunday school lessons.  The pastor is proclaimer and apologist.

3. Pastors work hard to let their faith transform all they are.  This may sound obvious on some level, but once we begin to do some serious self-analysis we will likely find out how much we have been shaped by the culture we live in.  This problem grows more serious the more post-Christian our culture becomes.  If you are a political creature, how honest can you be with yourself about how much of your biblical interpretation is based on your political preferences?  Are you a traditionalist in your faith fighting hard against everything that strikes you as different or changing?  This topic is complicated, but pastors must begin the process of doing this work on their own worldviews.

4. Pastors do not talk like everyone else.  One sure way of sticking out in a conversation or forcing someone to stop and think about what you are talking about is to use vocabulary and categories they never use themselves.  The more TV people watch the fewer words they use, the more alike everyone sounds, and the less individuals think for themselves.  The pastor, who has hopefully read their Augustine and Barth, has a completely different set of ideas to draw from about life and thus traffics in different, deeper, vocabulary.

5. Pastors must rise out of Scripture when they sermonize.  Again, this may sound obvious to some but I grow increasingly worried that pastoral work in 21st century America has less and less to do with the Bible and more and more to do with broader cultural and political concerns.  The people who actually make it into the pews on Sundays have spent all week listening to prosaic propaganda designed to sell them something shallow or short on actual life.  So when they sit down the pastor had better be different, and that requires letting the Word and Spirit do the talking.